Considered the “third leading cause of death” worldwide, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, including emphysema. Emphysema causes damage to the air sacs and can progress to a cascade of problems including holes in your lungs if left untreated. This gloomy prognosis makes symptom awareness front and centre.
Once you develop emphysema, the air sacs in your lungs, also known as alveoli, become damaged.
Worryingly, the inner walls of these air sacs can weaken over time and rupture, creating larger air spaces instead of many small ones.
The Mayo Clinic explains: “This reduces the surface area of the lungs and, in turn, the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream.
“When you exhale, the damaged alveoli don't work properly and old air becomes trapped, leaving no room for fresh, oxygen-rich air to enter.”
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While the breathing problems tend to get gradually worse over time, treatment could help keep them under control, according to the NHS.
In order to get the right help, you need to identify the condition first.
The health service recommends looking out for the following warning signs:
- Increasing breathlessness (particularly when you're active)
- Persistent chesty cough with phlegm (some people may dismiss this as just a "smoker's cough")
- Frequent chest infections
- Persistent wheezing.
The Mayo Clinic advises to “see your doctor” if you’ve had unexplained shortness of breath for several months.
You should be especially cautious if this type of breathlessness gets worse or interferes with your daily activities.
“Don't ignore it by telling yourself it's because you're ageing or out of shape,” the health body adds.
It’s crucial to start treatment “as soon as possible” before your lungs sustain a severe injury, according to the NHS.
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While the damage to your lungs caused by emphysema is usually permanent, the right treatment can help slow down the progression of the condition.
From quitting smoking to surgery, there are various things that can help target emphysema.
The health service explains that quitting cigarettes is the “most important” thing you can do if you smoke.
Furthermore, inhalers, medicine and rehabilitation could help make your breathing easier.
How to prevent emphysema
The good news is that COPD is “largely” preventable, the NHS explains.
It states: “You can significantly reduce your chances of developing it if you avoid smoking.
“If you already smoke, stopping can help prevent further damage to your lungs before it starts to cause troublesome symptoms.”
You should also stay away from second-hand smoke, which is the type from burning tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, or pipes.